How much pizza is too much pizza?

Eight new pepperoni rivals opening stores here
Can fast-casual pizza joints beat out LaRosa's?
Can fast-casual pizza joints beat out LaRosa's?
Posted at 5:00 AM, May 31, 2016
and last updated 2016-06-08 12:23:26-04

LAS VEGAS - No one likes a soggy pizza. So, now seems a good time to ask if Cincinnati’s pie market is at risk of becoming over-saturated.

At least eight new competitors are scouring Cincinnati for suitable sites. And this is in a market where pepperoni rivals already have more than 300 locations.

One of the newbies is Giordano’s, the Chicago-based deep dish chain that announced its interest in Cincinnati last year but is still searching for a suitable first home.

Most of the new competitors are fast-casual concepts that build your pizza to order and cook it quickly in an uber-hot oven. At least seven of these stores have opened since 2014, but they’ve yet to cause the Cincinnati-based market leader LaRosa’s Inc. to lose revenue.

“What’s great about it is more and more consumers are enjoying pizza on a regular basis,” said CEO Mike LaRosa. “It used to be something where people would have pizza maybe once a month. It’s kind of becoming a once a week thing.”

The family-owned LaRosa’s chain has 74 locations and is retooling its local stores, relocating some and renovating others. It’s been tracking the fast-pizza trend since its California inception.

“It remains to be seen how sustainable some of these concepts are,” LaRosa said. “There’s a place for it, but how long will it be around and who will be the one or two concepts that make it?”

Here’s a roster of rivals, for those keeping score and/or thinking about lunch and dinner:

  • California import Blaze Pizza has blazed a trail to Mason.
  • Another west coaster, Pieology, can now be studied near the University of Cincinnati and in Anderson Township.
  • Chipotle-backed Pizzeria Locale is getting ready to open its second Cincinnati “locale” on Mason Montgomery Road.
  • Pies and Pints, with one location at Liberty Center and a second planned at The Banks riverfront development Downtown.
  • MOD Pizza, a Seattle concept, chose Oakley Station as its first local site and is looking for more.
  • PizzaFire is an Akron-based concept that hasn’t made its way to Cincinnati, but is looking.
  • Cucinova is the “urban Italian” brand launched by Columbus-based Sbarro LLC in 2013. It has a Kenwood location that opened in 2014.

WCPO explored pizza penetration in the Tri-State at the International Council of Shopping Centers RECon 2016 event in Las Vegas, where one broker privately joked about the zeal of these new players, who “all think their sauce cures cancer.”

The pizza trend is similar to the chicken craze that included the Cincinnati invasion of Raising Cane's and the "better burger" boom that gave us concepts like Five Guys and Smashburger, said Casey Ward, a partner a Midland Retail.

"It's not just Cincinnati," Ward said. "You're seeing it all over. Columbus, Cleveland, Dayton too."

There are 209 pizza restaurants inside the I-275 loop that generate about $127 million in revenue, said Helen Thompson, director of commercial marketing for the data-analytics firm Esri.

Thompson conducted an impromptu site search for WCPO and found several territories where residents of Blue Ash, Terrace Park, Milford and Winton Woods still have to drive more than five minutes for pizza. But she made a surprising choice on the best neighborhood for a new pizza parlor, based on mapping overlays that showed restaurant spending, household income and trade areas for existing pizza chains.

It’s the 45218 zip code of Greenhills, surrounded on three sides by Hamilton County’s Winton Woods park. Esri data shows 21 percent of its residents are empty nesters with above-average disposable income of about $58,000 per year. Eighty percent of them have dined outside the home in the last six months.

“People (in Greenhills) like the Texas Roadhouse experience or Logan’s Roadhouse, but Bob Evans is very popular in the region, with more than twice the national average of people eating there,” she said.